Paddle Therapy

Last week I decided to get back out into the water to test a shoulder injury I sustained in January. Gravity left me with a torn rotator cuff and shoulder labrum, and until recently I didn’t think kayaking would even be possible. I’ve been doing physical therapy for a few months now, and facing surgical repair, I decided to give it a try before having surgery. Maybe I could get a few trips in this summer before the surgery and 6 months of rehab happened.

So I visited Quemahoning reservoir in Holsopple, PA. Just a few miles south of Johnstown, Quemahoning is a 900 acre reservoir with a public access area. The name is from the language of the native Delaware tribes, and means something like “a stream issuing from a lick in a pine grove”. There are tent sites, picnic areas, a playground, and cabin rentals. There is also a place to inexpensively rent kayaks, which is what I did. I got an old Pelican, a wide sit-in kayak that reminded me of my first. A veritable tub that’s nearly impossible to tip over. It may not track well, but does the job for a rental.

I planned for an hour’s rental, but ended up doubling that, as the day was beautiful, my shoulder was doing fine, and I was reminded how peaceful paddling out in the middle of a large body of water can be. It was absolutely therapeutic.

Watery toes, no woes

There’s some sort of kids’ camp near the public access area, and camp was in session. So the reservoir wasn’t exactly quiet, but there were some quieter places on the other side, and probably farther away. For the vast amount of water, there were no powerboats. They may be more prevalent on weekends, but I can’t say I missed them.

Quiet shoreline

I’m scheduled for surgery a month from now, so I hope to return here for a longer visit to get in more paddle therapy.

For a serene, few minute video, click here.

Awareness, Acceptance, and ASD

In honor of Autism Awareness Day, I’m writing a piece on Autism. Before you close the tab thinking “I don’t know anyone with Autism”, let me suggest that you most likely do.

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a term for a collection of traits manifested by (per the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-V) “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts… and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”, which affect one throughout one’s life (description in plain English to follow). It’s a state of neurodivergence; meaning that the brain is “wired” differently than the greater (“neurotypical”) population. It can range from those needing a large level of support to those who may need less support, and includes those who fall under the category of Asperger Syndrome*. No matter what the presentation, all need understanding and acceptance.

Why is it called a spectrum? Even though those affected fit into these diagnostic criteria, they can present in a countless variety of ways. Dr. Stephen Shore, an autism researcher who is also on the spectrum says, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with Autism”. Meaning that, simply because someone is autistic, it doesn’t mean that they will act like Ray from Rainman, Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, or even Sam from Atypical. In fact, these stereotyped expectations have led to failures in proper diagnosis for those who are not white and/or cis male. BIPOC individuals are less likely to be diagnosed despite the fact that autism most likely affects them equally, and researchers are also now finding that the autistic male/female gender ratio is lower than the 4:1 ratio that was previously “standard”. Other gendered stereotypes have also created more intense cultural pressure to “fit in” with society, and that pressure may lead many to learn to mask their symptoms, so much so that it becomes difficult to receive a proper diagnosis. In addition, those of any gender with higher intelligence learn to mask their symptoms to the degree that perhaps they appear normal, or perhaps just seem a bit “quirky”. All the while they appear like a swan which seems to effortlessly glide on the surface of the water: yet underneath they’re paddling and struggling with great effort, and it’s exhausting as hell.

So what are some examples (in English instead of medical-ese) of how people on the spectrum are affected? I’ll give some examples for each diagnostic criteria, but they are by no means exhaustive:

Persistent Deficits in Social Communication and Social Interaction This can range from being nonverbal, having limited communication, to hijacking conversations and talking non-stop; missing cues that one’s audience is no longer interested. It can be an awkwardness in initiating and continuing either verbal conversations or forms of written correspondence. It can also include difficulties in regulating the volume or cadence of one’s voice. In the context of non-verbal communication, it can mean missing out on body language cues (leading to an inability to understand others’ intentions), having difficulty making eye contact, to even making too much eye contact with others, and being accused of staring at them. It’s a feeling that everyone else has received instructions on how to interact – and you missed the class. These deficits can obviously create difficulties in developing and maintaining relationships with others.

Restricted, repetitive types of behavior, interests, or activities These include but are not limited to the following four categories, taken from the DSM-V:

Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech – Many people may think of rocking or flapping one’s hands when they think of someone who is autistic, but there are many more examples, and not all of them are so obvious. It could be playing with one’s hair, biting one’s nails, chewing on things, or tapping on things. It can present as fiddling with objects in a repetitive way, or needing to have one’s things placed just so. Speech can include repeating phrases (Think Rainman’s “97X BAM! The FUTURE of rock and roll”), or reusing phrases one has heard in other conversations or movies, in a manner that may or may not quite fit the context of the present conversation.

Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior – This is often manifested as having great difficulty with changes to one’s schedule, or surprises, especially when it is directed from outside one’s choosing. It can also manifest as black and white thinking patterns, needing to always take the same route to a destination, following the same routines, or eating the same food every day. Eating disorders can also be coexistent with autism.

Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus – The stereotype is that of a child who is fascinated by dinosaurs or trains, and can rattle off every known fact about them, but the fixed interest could be types of animals, or celebrities, or quantum physics, and can change throughout one’s life.

Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment – This can manifest itself as extreme sensitivity to odors, fluorescent lights, scratchy clothes, or loud noises, among other things. It can manifest as food sensitivities, in which certain flavors or textures of food are avoided, or having foods touch each other is avoided. Many of these things will affect the general population, but for someone on the spectrum, they can be nearly if not completely intolerable. It can also manifest in the other direction, in which someone may seek sensory stimulation in various categories, such as constantly reaching out to touch or to smell things, surrounding oneself with soft blankets and clothing, or fascination with glittery things.

One of the things the DSM-V does not mention, but is common in ASD, is limitations in executive function; such as planning, organizing, or short-term memory. In the case of those with autism who have higher intelligence, one often hears family members saying “How can someone so smart be so stupid?”. Yet it’s not a matter of stupidity by any means; it’s simply a lack of executive function. It often means that too many varying streams of information get tangled up in the divergent wiring of the autistic brain, and get dropped along the way.

These examples are by no means exhaustive. Autistic traits may cause a person on the spectrum to come across as difficult, aloof, uncaring, or weird. Yet these traits are wired into the brain, just like being left-handed, and are simply expressions of trying to fit into a world which is not geared toward their nature. Many autistics have made great contributions to society, and despite their difficulties, autistics have incredible things to offer; see an article here on famous people who may be/have been on the spectrum. Yet coming forward with one’s autistic status does not always meet with acceptance, and can often meet with ridicule, disbelief (“You don’t look autistic”), or abandonment. As a result, many continue in silence, being constantly misunderstood.

If you’re still reading and interested, thank you. Much of the information I’ve gained has been through video presentations by Dr. Tony Atwood, Sarah Hendrickx, and Paul Micallef, and through The Asperger/Autism Network (AANE).

I’ve also gained knowledge from real life. I’ve always had an unexplained interest in autism, and with more research, discovered I knew people who were on the spectrum. While watching YouTube videos, I found a great deal of similarity with female autistic presenters, and familiarity with many of the defining characteristics of autism. I took a few tests online, results of which suggested that I too, am most likely on the spectrum. Initially I doubted how I could have had a successful career, traveled, and lacked some of the stereotypical characteristics, and still be on the spectrum. I soon learned through my research and the understanding of how differently autism presents, that it was entirely possible, and even probable. Yet instead of being a negative burden, it was actually a great relief to know that there may be a reason why I have struggled with certain things throughout my life.

Seeking an official diagnosis here in the US is quite expensive, ranging from several hundred to nearly two thousand dollars. Because autism was previously assumed to be mostly a male diagnosis, very few clinicians have experience recognizing it when it doesn’t present in the stereotypical way. For me in my mid 50’s, I have wandered through life, often falling, but getting back up again. I am fortunate (and privileged) enough that I don’t need monetary support. As I’m not seeking support, I don’t feel as if I need a label, but for those seeking official support, a diagnosis will be essential for assistance or accommodation. Personally, getting to know others on the spectrum has helped me find a group of people who can empathize with each other, and accept and support each other in their autistic challenges. I’m content with that without seeking an official diagnosis.

While not a path that everyone would choose to follow, for me Buddhist practice has offered the most support of all, even before I knew of this wiring in the brain. Buddhist teachings explain that all of the things which we normally think of as “me” or “mine”… are not. This body (just a rental car, of sorts), this brain, our senses, our thoughts, our mental habits, etc., are all just passing clouds that are not really under our control. This teaching of not-self became even more apparent when I realized I was most likely on the spectrum. I had struggled with many of the examples listed above, and would often blame myself for them; to take them personally. Learning about autism helped me realize that these difficulties were simply a matter of brain wiring, and not to be taken as “me or mine”. Would I chastise myself for having brown hair or two legs? So instead of clinging to the diagnosis, for me it’s become a way to let go. I’m not claiming perfection or even near perfection in that regard, but there’s certainly progress. There’s peace and happiness in that.

If you know someone on the spectrum (and now you know at least one), please realize that when we struggle in a world not geared for neurodivergence, that we are not trying to be aloof, loud, awkward, demanding, or difficult. Long ago, those that were left-handed were made to learn to write with their right hands. Today we know that doing this causes great suffering, and accommodations are made for those who are left-handed. No one is ostracized or disdained for it. My hope is that someday those on the spectrum will find the same acceptance and inclusion.

If you found something of interest, or even familiarity with some of the aspects of autism, the sites listed below are online tests and other sites which might be helpful.

*One final note: Conventionally, the term Asperger’s syndrome is often used to describe autistic individuals without language delay or intellectual impairment (often having above average intelligence). This term was dropped in the current edition of the DSM, although many people continue to identify with the name. Personally, I don’t care to use the term. Hans Asperger, the Austrian psychologist famed for discovering boys with this syndrome in the 1940’s, worked closely with the nazi party and knowingly sent children to their deaths in hospitals which routinely and intentionally killed children with mental illness. I prefer not to glorify someone who could carry out such horrible acts. For more information, read Asperger’s Children, by Edith Shefter.

Other sites:

Autism Quotient Test

Aspie Quiz

AANE

Autism Society

Wherein I Discover Why GoPros Are a Thing

The sun rose this morning on a winter wonderland here. Three inches of snow lay glistening on the ground and more continued to fall throughout the morning.

My inner child was jumping for joy.

So after lunch I pulled on layers of clothing (“I CAN’T MOVE MY ARMS NOW!!!”), grabbed my sled (Yes, I am an adult who owns a sled. Don’t judge.), and drove to the sledding hill at Ohiopyle State Park. Apparently nobody else nearby had the time or inclination to go sledding. Go figure. So I had the fresh snow and hill to myself. This later proved to be a good thing.

This is the hill, looking up from the bottom.

Looks like fun, right?

I trudged up the hill, and….

Just click here and watch the video!

Apparently it’s difficult to steer in general, but holding one’s cell phone makes things much more challenging.

And wet.

Sans video, I made it a few times without wiping out, but certainly had fun in the process. Just an hour or so playing around was enough. I came home wet, cold, and content.

Wishing you childlike wonder, simple joys, and laughter.

May the Healing Begin

By not holding to fixed views, the pure hearted one

Having clarity of vision, being freed from all sense desires,

Is not born again into this world.

Karaniya Metta Sutta

Not holding on to fixed views has been more difficult than usual lately with the impending election. No matter where one turns, there is injustice, anger, hatred and ignorance. It’s so easy to fall into an “us versus them” mentality and objectify the other side. To wrap ourselves in a cloak of sensed justice and cover our own eyes to the humanity of those with an opposing view. We rally for the underdogs, yet turn our kindness away from those holding a view we disagree with.

It seems like the United States, and perhaps the world, has reached a heightened level of division. Many of us on the leftward side of politics thought that surely Biden would win by a landslide. And yet, as the polls began, the contenders were neck and neck. A sure win wasn’t so sure.

Which means that nearly half of the country felt that Donald Trump should continue to be president. Why?

I don’t really know, because I have failed to ask in any meaningful way. I believe many others have probably failed in this regard as well. If there is to be any healing to this country, both our leaders and our citizens, are going to have to start asking those questions of the “other side”.

I am by no means saying that these conversations should condone any acts of cruelty, hatred or injustice, but instead to seek out where we have failed in meeting the true needs of others.

I have a dear friend who I know is a Trump supporter, yet I’ve never really asked her why. Part of me fears that I wouldn’t be able to hear her answer without becoming emotionally activated, and getting into an argument. Yet this person is a friend, and I value our friendship above and beyond our respective views. Wouldn’t it be great if we could calmly compare our viewpoints and find our commonality?

I’ve been following Oren Jay Sofer, who incorporates mindfulness with Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. He offers a process of having conversations with others that honors the humanity of both sides. In his book “Say What You Mean”, he describes a three-part process, which I am loosely paraphrasing here in my explanations:

  1. Lead with Presence: Can we pause to be in touch with our emotions and how they feel in the body as we begin the conversation?
  2. Come From Curiosity and Care: Can we put aside our views and truly listen for the needs of the other person as they share their perspective, with empathic acknowledgment of the shared experience of suffering with this other person?
  3. Focus on what matters: Can we identify the needs behind their statements and views?

If you find this approach interesting, please click on the link above to learn more. I am by no means an expert on this type of communication. There have been multiple failures in my previous attempts in this style of communication, yet there have been successes as well, and my hope is that the more I practice this, the better I will become.

So I hope that in the future, I can let go of my fixed view enough to have a conversation with my friend. I hope we all can have a conversation with someone who doesn’t share our views.

There is a quote by W. L. Bateman, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got”. Somehow we need to put our views down for just a moment to have these conversations, to form a bridge, or we will continue to be “born” into a world of division, hatred, and ignorance.

Thanks for reading, and as always, be well and peaceful.

Fall-ing

Ajahn Chah, a prominent monk in the Thai Forest tradition of Buddhism, said that “Nature is always teaching us”. I took a walk the other day to enjoy the fall colors unique to the northeast, and was reminded of this quote.

Living in an area with distinct seasons provides a constant reminder of the ‘regularity’ of change: as much as we enjoy any season, it won’t last forever. The greens of summer gradually fade and change to the brilliant hues of fall. These bodies that we inhabit, which society tells us to enjoy only in their “spring” form, become resplendent in their decay as we age. If we hold on to youth, we miss out on the maturity and wisdom that age bestows. This too, passes in nature. Rain which we so desperately need will wash away the leaves from the trees and herald the coming of winter. One of the daily reflections in the Buddhist tradition is to reflect upon the fact that we are of the nature to get sick, grow old, and die. Not to be morbid or to be preoccupied with death, but to be present for the life that is the present. Right now.

Watching the changes in nature also reminds me to take a step back from any issue which the mind brings up, and look at the greater picture. Leaves, like worries, fall to the ground and take their place in the seasons of life.

I ventured in a new direction on my walk, and was rewarded with the discovery of a small waterfall near my home. There are some great big boulders there that will make great meditation spots, and the sound of the water going over and under the rocks is a soothing background.

So for a time in which travel is limited, my gift to you is a beautiful reminder of change. Take a step back, but don’t fall off the rocks!

Resplendent Age
Fallen Worries
Beauty in difference
Fuzzy wuzzy was a moss

For video, click here

Be well and peaceful, dear readers.

Filling the GAP

Less than a mile or two from where I’m living now is a rails-to-trails path called the Greater Allegheny Passage. It’s an old railroad line that now serves as a bike path stretching 150 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD. It connects with a further trail named the C&O Towpath that goes a further 250 miles to Washington DC. Ever since my folks moved out to this area, I’ve enjoyed walking on this trail. The nearby section follows the Casselman river, and is lined with trees and filled with scenic vistas. For years I’ve thought “One of these days, I’d love to bike the entire GAP trail. Finally this summer, I pulled out that “round tuit” and biked the GAP.

I am not a great cyclist. You won’t find me training for the Tour de France anytime in this lifetime. I’ve ridden off and on over the years, but never with any prolonged intensity. The idea of riding 150 miles, even over several days, was something I did not take lightly, and so I did put in hundreds of miles in training this summer, and picked a date in the fall when the weather would hopefully be decent and the leaves would just be starting to turn.

Logistics alone were a challenge. Getting a ride from bike companies from one end to the other was prohibitively expensive for a single traveler. There is a train, but it gets into downtown Pittsburgh at 11PM. No buses available either. So I drove to Cumberland, rented a car one way back to Pittsburgh with my bike aboard, and caught a bus from the airport that took passengers and their bikes to the trail. Whew. Thankfully, I only had a few miles to go for the first day.

The northern terminus of the trail begins at Point State Park, nestled in the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers which create the Ohio river. The trail follows south along the Monongahela through the city through parks and trendy commercial areas, tucked away out of Pittsburgh traffic.

My first stop was Homestead, less than 10 miles from the start. My aim was to keep things relatively simple, so I stayed in a hotel. After putting in over 170 miles of driving, I kept the biking mileage light, and my hotel appeared on the trail before I knew it.

Continuing south the next day, the trail went along roads and followed train tracks past steel mills and other industrial areas. While the factories aren’t exactly scenic, their sheer numbers do give an indication of how Pittsburgh was built. There’s a reason their football team is called the Steelers.

Further along, the trail goes behind Kennywood amusement park. This park began in 1898 and has been giving Pittsburgh residents vertiginous thrills for over 120 years. My grade school days were mostly spent in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and in days long past, towards the end of the school year they would pack us youngsters in buses and let us run amok all over the park. We would spend the day going on all the roller coasters and other rides that our youthful bodies could manage. Kennywood was the essence of summer vacation for us, as much as Otter pops, sparklers, and freshly cut grass.

Moving along from old memories, I followed the trail over old metal bridges into McKeesport, where the Youghiogheny (pronounced yock/i/gainey) river meets the Monongahela. The trail then goes southeast along the “yough” river to Boston. Boston, Pennsylvania, that is. Unlike the big Boston, little Boston is a sweet little town with parks, baseball fields, a welcoming visitor station and an old railroad car on display. There are old mills from earlier times that are no longer running, and one can imagine what the town was like in its heyday.

The trail continues through a wooded path along the river. My stop after 50 miles was in Connellsville, after riding along the river and through sleepy small towns that time forgot. Connellsville was the site of a camp for British General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian war. Included in his troops at the time was the young George Washington. Things didn’t go well for General Braddock, but George Washington fared a little better, I think.

The next morning I headed further through Ohiopyle State Park, a haven for kayakers, river rafters, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The welcoming town has a plethora of restaurants, shops and inns catering to visitors, and the waterfalls in the park are a must-see.

I stopped after nearly 40 miles to rest up for the final day. From Pittsburgh to Connellsville, the trail is pretty flat, but then it picks up steadily in elevation gain past that. While the grade isn’t more than 2%, a bit past Ohiopyle one really starts to notice it. So on the last day, I climbed steadily for 30 miles, past forests and farmlands, over viaducts and bridges upwards toward the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of 2,392 feet. By the time I made it I was questioning my sanity in doing this trip, but then the elevation and my mind state changed course. After the divide, there is an elevation drop of over 1500 feet in the course of 23 miles. Not roller coaster worthy, but still fun to do on a bike. I enjoyed riding through the well-lit Big Savage Tunnel, past the Mason-Dixon Line, and all the way into Cumberland. There may have been a few moments in which I did an impersonation of the Geico pig, but there were no witnesses to confirm or deny that event.

If you asked me that day when I had just finished if I would do it again next year, you may have received an icy stare. But now that the body has recovered (or forgotten)… well, I might. But after nearly ten years of saying “someday”, I’m glad I found that round tuit.

A Lifetime of Letting Go

Thanks to Rachel Hill for the wonderful inspiration!

As an adult, I came across the book “Material World: A Global Family Portrait”, and was fascinated by it. It’s a photographic journey across the world in which families from different countries put everything they own outside in front of their house. I was amazed by the amounts, large and small, of what people kept in their homes, and which objects were important to them.

I’ve never been much of a collector of things. When I was growing up, my stepmother had a lot of tchotchkes in the home. Each room had a “theme” of collectibles: the kitchen filled with lady bug designs, the Japanese-styled dining and formal room, and the nautical living room. All of the knickknacks creating these themes had to be dusted and otherwise cared for. Heaven help you if you broke them. 

When I left home, I decided I would love people and use things, rather than the other way around. While at the time I was still caught in the mainstream of wanting stylish things at home, I still don’t remember collecting much. As I got older, when living alone I usually kept few belongings, and in the times when I was married, left with even fewer belongings when I got divorced. In my early 30’s, someone once remarked about my place: “It looks like she’s on the lam, ready to move at a moment’s notice”.” Letting go of things was the easy(er) part.

But the real jumpstart to letting go occurred in my 40’s. Not just to letting go of objects, but of an entire lifestyle. I was married, working in an ER as a Physician Assistant, and had begun practicing Buddhism (a long story in itself). After a year or so of practice, a teacher had recommended I volunteer in Hospice. I did, and it changed my life’s course. Working with Hospice patients encouraged me to start asking myself the question I had been avoiding: What would I do if I only had 6 months to live? I realized I would want to live quite differently than how I was living at the time. 

I ended up walking away from the marriage and the job, moving to the Pacific Northwest, and eventually, ordaining in the Zen tradition. Mid-life crisis? Perhaps. But the move was a major step in the right direction, even if it required some tweaking with time. 

I later left the Zen tradition upon becoming more familiar with the Theravadan school of Buddhism, and became a “householder” once again; renting a smaller home. Soon afterwards, life called for further changes, and I later prepared for a move across the country to be closer to my mom and stepfather. So I downsized again. I sold my furniture at bargain prices, and gave away whatever else that would cost more to ship than to replace. After a while, I began to wonder if my friends were tired of hearing, “Hey, would you like this…..”.

When I got to the east coast, I went through my things and still found things I could have lived without. I had moved in with my folks who already had plenty of things in their house, thank you. No need for kitchen gadgets and not much closet or bookshelf space, either. I eventually got my own apartment for a while, and within months moved to a furnished condo. Once again, I sold all my furniture: the bed, bookcase, table and chairs that I had just acquired. 

During this time I was working in an inner city emergency room (again!), and after 13 years of working in the American healthcare system, was completely stressed and burnt out. I suppose I had to relearn the lesson I had received years before when I had moved to the Pacific Northwest. Such is the power of delusion. Something had to give. While I loved the challenges of working in the ER, it was highly stressful, and not a healthy environment for me to be in. Since my mom was doing well health-wise, and the ER job was temporary, I had planned to do some extended travel at the end of my contract.

So I left the job, left the condo, and stuffed nearly all of my belongings into a Honda Fit (oddly enough, they did), and dropped them off at my parents’ place to live out of a suitcase for an extended period of travel. During that time, I never missed any of the things I had left behind. Traveling with a backpack carry-on meant that I rarely picked up anything else during my travels, either. 

As my travel funds dwindled and it came time to go back to work, I made the giant step into letting go of a lifestyle (again). I realized the interest just wasn’t there to return to the rat race of working, even if it meant losing a healthy salary. So instead of returning to work, I took the first withdrawal from my long-term savings fund in order to stay at monasteries and continue the spiritual practice. It was with no small amount of trepidation that I took that first yearly disbursement, but I still knew deep down that it was the right thing to do.

I am extremely fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to do this. I have enjoyed opportunities that many have not, and I’m increasingly aware of this. Thanks to those opportunities and an aversion to debt, I had saved enough money for a simple lifestyle until my retirement kicks in. Staying at monasteries meant that I also benefited from the goodwill of others, as the monasteries in our tradition are entirely run on donations. I am more thankful than I can put into words for these opportunities. 

I’ve since moved back in with my folks to help them out as they face medical and aging challenges. Helping them out is the right choice for me, and letting go thus far has made the choice much easier. I also continually reevaluate this practice of letting go. It’s not just stuff: sometimes it’s letting go of views, activities and habits that are no longer useful. One of the hardest to let go of has been the self view of “me as a medical practitioner”. There’s been a part of me that worries about being seen as “some lazy bum without a job”. Yet even this is fading away.

As I stay here for the foreseeable future, I know that at some point in time I will move back to the Pacific Northwest, which means another cross country trip. It really helps to keep any purchases to a minimum when I know I’ll just have to give things away or schlep them across the country.  Sadly my ‘year of buying nothing’ petered out after about six months, but I’m still working on non-accumulation. I think I could fit everything I own into my car at this point, but I will still probably end up doing another pre-travel shed when the time comes. 

So here I am, in my mid 50’s, without my own home, with few possessions, and no “real job”. By worldly standards, I could be considered a loser. Yet what I’ve lost is a great deal of stress, and time spent working to accumulate more stuff. I’m OK with that. I’ve gained the time to help my folks, and to work on the spiritual practice.

This lifestyle is not for everyone. I sometimes feel like a monastic without a monastery – a truly “homeless one”, as junior monastics are called. As my friends are buying houses of their own and earning incomes (or not, in these times of Covid), sometimes I think about what it would be like to have a cabin of my own in the woods somewhere. It might still happen. But for now, this process of letting go brings a freedom that is peaceful. I’m still on the journey…

Join Me

Like many, I was horrified to watch the recent murder of George Floyd.
I have always felt that my path to promote peace in the world is to promote peace in oneself. I cannot rid the world of all injustice. And yet…
Silence can be construed as consent, and I do not consent to a world in which people are systemically oppressed, beaten, and killed simply for the color of their skin.
I realize that these things have been going on for some time. ‘Enough is enough’ happened a long time ago. I have been raised in white privilege and have missed a great deal. I know that there’s a lot I don’t know.
They’ll send you actions you can take to support Black people and allies, invite you to events in your city, and it’s free to join.
I am sure there are some who will find fault with something I say or don’t say in this post. But I will no longer allow fear of saying the wrong thing to keep me from speaking out. I do not wish to consent to violence by silence.

Only that which will bring you honor

Some years ago, I knew someone who was fairly popular in a group I associated with. Being “in” with this person meant being in with the surrounding group. For purposes of ease and anonymity, I’ll call this person “They”. They were genial and charismatic, and appeared friendly to many, including myself. They were patient and intent on their spiritual journey. They had the ear of the leaders of the group and knew a great deal about what went on. They were the “one to know”.

It seems hardwired into our DNA to want to feel included in a group. To be included is to feel safe, to have access to opportunities that being alone doesn’t offer. Childhood conditioning says that being in with the cool kids is the place to be. It’s a hard feeling to outgrow, even when one is far into adulthood.

I spent some time with this group, and slowly realized that being in the “in” crowd meant hearing a lot of gossip. At first, it was gratifying. It felt good to be an “us” vs “other”. They don’t call it “juicy” gossip for no reason. There’s a satisfaction that often comes with gossip. I’m not saying it’s a skillful satisfaction by any means, but it’s an easy road to go down.

In time though, I noticed how these gossip sessions felt, and I found that the energy was not that which I enjoyed. I would walk away feeling aversion, creating stories in my mind about the people discussed. There was a sense of how “I” was better (yikes!). There was also a sinking feeling in my gut that told me that I wasn’t following my own values.

I also had other more skillful groups to compare this one to. Groups which I never heard speaking ill of others, and accordingly, how much better it felt to be around the more skillful groups. Slowly I came to a realization: I’d rather not be included in a group that regularly engaged in gossip. The “cool kids”… no longer seemed all that cool.

The more I saw how gossip had tainted the behavior of this group, the less I wanted to be a part of it, even though all of them had many other good qualities. These were people that I had learned from and even admired. I still look upon the members of this group as whole people who engage in skillful and unskillful behavior, just as I do. We’re all trying to find happiness, and usually we all go about finding it in a misguided or deluded way. This is only part of their behavior, and perhaps only my perception. I wish them all well. And if I only associate with perfect practitioners, it would be quite a lonely practice. I couldn’t even associate with myself. Yet at least at this time, I feel it’s better to avoid placing myself in company of those with which unskillful behavior is likely to follow.

There’s a saying, “If you spot it, you got it”, meaning that the things we find annoying in others are often the things we like (and see) least in ourselves. I know I’ve said things in the past that have not been skillful, and knowing how it has the potential to be painful to me (let alone the other person), makes me hope not to engage in such behavior in the future.

Sometimes there’s also a fine line with mixed intentions. I may relate an event or series of events to a friend to get their opinion. Yet I can’t say that there isn’t at least a small part of me that is hungry for that friend to help me build up my “he said, she said” story. But genuine guidance and reflection from a spiritual friend is always welcome in the long run, and sometimes that means relating details about others that may be negative. Where’s the middle way?

Even this blog post could be an example. My intention is not to point a finger or identify anyone. My intention is to reveal the difficulties I have faced with gossip in order to share with others that difficulty and also to offer reflections on what I have found helpful.

The Buddha offered guidance on things to consider before admonishing someone, which certainly would hold true for relating information to someone else:

It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good will.” (AN 5.158, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation)

Guru Nanak said “Speak only that which will bring you honor”.

Perhaps the key is to remember to check in with the heart and with one’s intentions before one opens one’s mouth. Perhaps easier said than done, but as the saying goes, that’s why they call it a practice.

Be well and peaceful, dear readers. If you’ve found ways of keeping your speech skillful, please feel free to share in the comments.

 

 

 

 

The Truth of Harry Potter

I’ve spent the last week down with the flu. It was all that you’d expect from the flu: coughing, aching, fever, nausea, vomiting, etc., etc.. Since I live with my parents who are elderly with medical issues, I spent much of my time holed away in my room avoiding contact that could make anyone else sick.

I’d like to say that I spent all of that time in copious meditation and death contemplation, but I can’t. I did some, but I also spent a lot of it watching movies on my computer.

Like the entire Harry Potter series.

As my mind cleared, however, I realized there are a few points that could be considered Dharma or Dhamma in the Harry Potter films, or just food for thought if one isn’t Buddhist.

Let’s pick the first movie. Spoiler alert for that one person left on the planet that hasn’t seen them yet and wants to. At the beginning of the movie, Harry and his friends become convinced that Professor Snape is the villain who wants to steal the philosopher’s stone. Each action taken convinces them of this perception more and more, despite the assurances by other professors that this is not the case. Harry’s broomstick is cursed? Snape is seen chanting incantations, so clearly it must be him. Snape get’s a gash on his leg? Further evidence. Each piece of the puzzle is put in place akilter because the trio has already decided on what the truth is. Any further evidence is seen in the light of what they perceive. No one can tell them otherwise until they discover the truth for themselves at the end of the movie.

The viewer is brought along with them by emotion and our own perceptions. We become convinced of the “rightness” of the characters and along with them, conceive what is “true” through our own glasses of perception. At the end of the movie, the characters discover that Professor Snape was protecting the stone and them, all along. The glasses are taken off and we see the truth.

Sure, it’s a kid’s movie that may be beating us over the head with what seems to be obvious, but how often do we do this in real life? Nearly anything we perceive has the potential to be grossly wrong. Yet we color what we see through delusion-colored glasses, often putting two and two together to make five. We hold onto that perception so tightly that we can’t let go. Until we find out for ourselves that it was all wrong (if we’re lucky).

How many things which we take for certain….aren’t?

Everything.

Professor Snape gets a bad wrap throughout all the movies, and characters and viewers alike consider him to be a persona non grata of sorts. Granted, he’s not exactly a warm, fuzzy, likable character, so it’s easy to do. But in the last movie, we see a clearer picture of Snape than we did before. We see his propensity towards the darker arts, yet we also see his love for Lilly and some of the trials he suffered at the hands of those we’ve thought of as heroes. We see how even though he joined Voldemort’s side early on,  he made the decision to become a guardian to Harry and to help Dumbledore in the fight against Voldemort. We see a more complete picture of him than just the simple “truth” that we assumed from the beginning of the movies.

“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying.” Robert Evans

So it is with all of us. We all have multiple layers of perception, of truth, of skillful and unskilful behavior. We know this intellectually, but I found in Harry Potter a reminder. That how we think of a person is shaped by our own perceptions of “truth”.  It’s easy to conceive an entire picture of someone based on our own perceptions of them, either good or bad, but how much of it is truth? Can we really know?

Be well and peaceful.